It couldn’t be true. Miriam stood like an idiot on the footpath with her jaw slack and her mobile planted to her ear, staring at the derelict ruin. She checked the street number on the sheath of documents balled in her sweaty palm, confirming again this was the correct address. Rosellas squabbled in bottlebrushes lining the row either side, a late-afternoon scene of urban tranquillity that mocked her half-share inheritence with its crumbling coat of grey concrete and boarded-over windows. The terrace hunkered between perfectly manicured homes like a hooligan’s middle finger thrust at the neighbours. And at her.
“Well, Mim?” Aaron demanded over her phone. “No need to draw out the suspense on this historic occasion. Show me.”
Her optimism shrivelled and it was all she could do to press ‘speaker’ and begin filming, panning to reveal the costly disappointment she was now responsible for making livable. It was a wonder the terrace hadn’t been condemned and totally beyond her purse, especially if eating was necessary ever again. She didn’t begin her new job for three weeks.
“Presenting number seven, Bligh Lane. Bit of a fixer-upper,” she said, aiming for nonchalant and failing.
Silence stretched across the ten hour void. If her adopted brother couldn’t generate a positive response from his cushy bedroom back home on the farm, Mim knew she was screwed. He tried, producing a throttled huff. He cleared his throat and launched another aborted attempt. This was no one’s dream inheritance.
Any hope of avoiding Emma’s cramped apartment across town tonight was premature. She’d have to return for another eight hours of teething twins and a frazzled mum who viewed attempts to help as an insult to her domestic pride, not to mention an imposition upon her dubious welcome.
Aaron finally found his voice. “I’ll come down. You can’t deal with this alone.”
Although thoughtful, it was not an option. Her adopted brother had to slave on the farm right up until enrolment day.
Mim reached around and shoved the wad of paper into her backpack, digging in the front pocket of her shorts and pulling out a single key on its ratty piece of string. With the benefit of hindsight, that should have given her a hint. Resentment towards her solicitor surfaced. Surely a friendly heads-up would have been decent? Of course, until a month ago Mim didn’t even know she had a Solicitor – a crusty old duffer called Denning who’d exhausted years hunting her along a mysterious ancestral tree
“I’m sure it’ll scrub up okay with a bit of spit and polish.” Possibly a wrecking ball.
On discovering the cost of the city, both had almost given up on their dream places at uni. But then Denning had phoned out of the blue and in the nick of time. She had suspected such a gift wouldn’t come without a catch or ten.
“I’m thinking napalm and a match.” He echoed her thoughts.
“Let’s not judge the chocolate by the wrapper. I’m sure it’s better inside.”
She continued to film: along the cracked front path, edging through a rusted chain-link gate that canted on a single corroded pivot and looked like it may lose to gravity any second. Two masonry columns of cancer-splotched render buttressed either side like arthritic guards, the front fence in both directions long since gone. Barry would faint at the unkempt state of the lawn. She took a couple of stairs to the porch, swiping away a jungle of webs. Who knew how much time elapsed since the front door had budged, its dark green paint peeling to reveal patches of timber beneath. Inserting the key in a tarnished dead-bolt and turning met stubborn resistance.
“Should have brought WD-40.”
Jiggling the key in the lock failed, so too an experimental karate kick. Mim pressed her shoulder against the door and shoved, stumbling into the gloomy, narrow space when it finally gave way in a hail of splinters and a screech of wood dragged on wood. The building groaned and creaked as if stretching awake after a long hibernation.
“Who needs WD-40?”
She rubbed her bruised shoulder and checked the damage. The lock was now useless, not that she worried anyone would enter of their own accord. Besides, she owned nothing worth stealing.
“Are you okay?” Aaron asked.
“So much for grandly crossing the threshold. I broke the strike plate.”
Churning shadow forced her to switch on the mobile’s torch. She swivelled to capture more video. Given the sight that met her, it would have been kinder not to. Any slim hope of improvement evaporated.
“Craptastic,” he mumbled, as the beam highlighted decades of neglect. “It’s as hideous inside, as out.”
A cool gust of fetid air laden with mildew and something far worse, made her gag. She sneezed, and cursed forgetting her Zyrtec.
“Ugh, there’s a dead animal in here. Maybe more than one.”
The stench was so thick, it coated her tongue and made her eyes water. It sounded like Mim had a heavy dose of sinus, trying as she was to breathe only through her mouth.
“As long as it’s dead,” Aaron said, “not nesting in the roof. I wouldn’t let the dogs live there. Even graffiti vandals and squatters have given it a miss.”
He’d reached that conclusion due to a layer of undisturbed dust, so thick she had no idea what the floor looked like underneath. The solicitor (she’d decided to give a good piece of her mind, whether interrupting his Sunday family roast or otherwise), offered some half-arsed explanation for the lack of trespassers during the Will reading.
“Due a series of unfortunate incidents,” he’d droned in his posh accent, “the Bligh Lane property has an undesirable reputation that has repelled the curious over many years.”
She’d asked what he meant, but his lips puckered and he refused to say more. Maybe she should have pushed harder, along with hassling for details on an anonymous partner to complicate matters. Odds on they’d turn up to claim their share, once she’d developed callouses and given the impoverished student cliché a new low. There wasn’t enough flesh on her skinny frame for starvation.
“Still, it’s Surry Hills. City investors would pay a fortune just for the privilege of spending a fortune renovating it. You could put it on the market as is, and we’d still be millionaires.”
“Denning made it very clear that I’m not allowed to sell.”
“That doesn’t sound right. Can the owner dictate what you do with your inheritance once they die?”
The truth would encourage more endless questions she wasn’t ready to deal with. “The title’s in trust. Unless certain conditions are met, that city investor dream is as useless as this pile of turd. Basically, we’re stuck with it.”
Some charcoal, grimy stain that likely demanded acid for removal, bubbled the walls. She zeroed-in on the lone piece of furniture: a ratty old chair at a jaunty diagonal next to an ornately mantled hearth of jade marble. Springs popped through cracked leather, stuffing scattered about its wooden legs like a grubby skirt.
“Must have been the loungeroom.” Aaron knew her tone well enough to drop it for the time being. “Nice fireplace, Mim. Do you think it’ll take a fire?”
“Not if that’s where the vermin are living. Can you hear it? All that muffled knocking and creaking?”
“Possums,” he verbally shuddered. “Nasty. Get rid of them first.”
Her beam travelled from the hearth to the right, revealing a tall square of plywood that covered a window behind her, next to the front door. Weeds had forced their way in via cracks, and long-neglected discards of former occupants – dirt-filled glass bottles, scraps of rotting packaging, utensils so corroded it was difficult to determine their original form – littered every surface. Surely the room wouldn’t be so dismal once she’d torn the boards down and let in the sunshine? It was hard to picture in the falling shade of afternoon. The more she saw of her surprise inheritance, the more deflated she became.
“If this shack wasn’t so close to college, I’d shut it back up and offer to babysit Em’s children in exchange for free rent. Regardless of how many buses or trains or sleepless nights I’d have to cop.”
“Where would I live?”
“Maybe you could commute.”
“Ten hours there and back every day. Very practical.”
Slinking back home to an ambition-drowning rural town where rusted combine-harvesters were the epitome of culture wasn’t an option. Emma’s debt from a triptych of prints on silk – unpaid on news of the twins unexpected conception – was almost cleared by Mim’s city stays to present her portfolio for college. And if the Sampsons hadn’t claimed her after she was found in the hospital foyer in a cardboard box, she’d be a State ward. She’d do anything for her foster family, who’d given her everything.
“I guess we’d better look at the rest.”
“We can fix it up,” he said, somewhat desperately. “I’ll see if I can work double shifts and come down earlier to help.”
She wouldn’t let him. It was the best wheat harvest after agonising years of drought during which they’d almost lost everything. He couldn’t abandon Marge and Barry, especially not because of her.
“It’s okay, Aaron. You forget I’ve seen your bedroom. We both know cleaning’s not your specialty.”
At least the house was tiny: a long, slim rectangular space halved by a set of rickety stairs hugging the left, beyond which was a dining-cum-kitchenette. Straight ahead in the courtyard out back, there was a laundry undoubtedly requiring a machete to reach. She knew from a moth-eaten set of plans the Solicitor had shown her during the Will reading, the stairs headed up to two bedrooms mirroring this front and back arrangement with a bathroom in between.
Skirting chunks of fallen plaster and drifts of debris where the walls met the floor, the floorboards moaned complaint. Her Docs stirred clouds no matter how carefully she placed them. She sneezed again, blinking to clear her eyes. No person had set foot inside in a long while, which proved confusing. How would the homeless hear the rumours anyway? It made no sense.
Away from a sliver of daylight and fresh air through the front door, the smell increased. Perhaps that encouraged people to avoid the place. Fly-blown carcasses out in the fields back home didn’t reek as bad. She tucked her face in the nook of her elbow, gingerly planting her weight on the bottom rung.
“Um, so the lawyer didn’t mention who gave it to you?”
“Nope. Just said I’d been left this by an anonymous donor, and left it at that.”
“Pardon? You’re mumbling.”
“Not a thing was said.”
It was the fourth time he’d brought it up, hoping for enlightenment about her parents. The whole episode confirmed she wasn’t wanted, a far bigger hurt than the fact she’d never met those responsible for such desertion. Her inheritance proved relatives could contact her if they’d wished. Outwardly, she buried her hurt and curiosity, acting pleased to stay ignorant. Others weren’t so easily convinced and she knew the subject would be revisited when she was least ready, if ever ready at all.
Unless some benevolent stranger had picked her name at random from the phone book. Although, surveying the ruin, whoever it had been was more likely a prankster in search of a gullible idiot. There was no handrail up the stairs. Each step without a plunge through calf-goring splinters inspired relief. She made the landing like an explorer conquering the summit, and revolved on the spot to film.
“What is this stuff do you reckon, Aaron?”
“Lord, don’t touch it. It’s probably lung-eating mould.”
“At some point, I’m going to have to scrub it off.”
Aaron remained mute when Mim bent closer to inspect the sooty walls. “Like chalky cremation ash or bone-dust from pauper’s graves.” The creepy words escaped her lips without conscious bidding.
“What did you say?”
She failed to shake apprehension that tingled up her spine, not usually afraid of the dark. This worn place with its slaughterhouse smell heightened awareness of dying and neglected things.
“Nothing. Speaking of which, here it goes.”
All three rooms were hidden behind doors. The middle one concealed the bathroom and toilet. She crossed in three strides and turned the knob, pushing the door on squealing hinges. An army of cockroaches skittered from her intrusion. How much did an exterminator cost? A large clubfoot tub sat on the right. Its curtain had long since disintegrated leaving a forlorn row of cream plastic hooks on a sagging rail, the showerhead so lime caked she’d need to replace it. A victim clotting in acid wouldn’t surprise. Opposite, a toilet tucked behind the door, and a stingy basin sat in the corner. A filthy window in between the bath and basin struggled to let in more than a jaundiced oblong.
“Are they vines above the window?” Aaron said. Thick, ropey tendrils climbed the wall and roof like bloated veins.
“I’m going to need shares in a bleach factory. I think the tiles are a delightful shade of urine underneath.”
“At least yellow’s a happy colour. Goes well with fungus green. You could fit three in that bath, though.”
“Don’t get any ideas.”
He just had to flash his dimples at hapless city ladies, who’d stand no chance against his unhurried country charm. He could probably persuade a few into volunteering for a cleaning bee. If Aaron was here, they’d be laughing over this ruin, pooling their pathetic finances and scraping by together. Missing him or not, that was a selfish fantasy. For the next couple of weeks, she was on her own. Depression smothered the initial thrill of owning something apart from a bed, a few other sticks of mismatched furniture, and a box of second-hand kitchenware, due to arrive tomorrow with the rest of her clothes.
“This is seriously going to eat into my funds.”
“Since when have you had funds?”
“Oh, ha ha.”
“Don’t worry, Mim. I’ll hit mum and dad up for a loan.”
“Thanks, Aaron, but I’d rather you didn’t. I’ll manage.” Somehow. “Let’s finish the tour so I can get back to Em’s for a Dettol scrub and splattered baby vomit, which at this point smells like Chanel by comparison.”
“Such choices. Sure you wouldn’t rather stay there?”
“Hilarious. I need to buy a crowbar. It might look better with light.” Worse, more likely.
“Or a bulldozer.”
Mim gave the empty back bedroom a cursory glance; nothing she hadn’t already seen. Just as she turned towards the front bedroom, a thump glued her to the spot. She tilted her head and strained to listen should it come again. Her mobile drooped to her side.
Rats? The sound had overcome the scurrying of bugs. Mim raised the torch, her hand shaking. A clot of dust motes swirled, the beam washing the last door in ghostly white. She held her breath and crept onwards, until disembodied fingers reaching for the handle became the singular focus. Silence reigned, and she couldn’t be sure it was an improvement. Possums didn’t usually play dead if threatened by an intruder and rodents were brazen in company.
“Miriam, what is it?” Aaron whispered.
She dared turn the video to her face. Even with closed doors and boards blocking the sun, shadow seemed inordinately dense inside the terrace. It was like a living force that teased and whirled on the edge of vision.
“I’m just tense, that’s all.”
Low battery flashed a warning. Her stomach lurched. Imagine getting caught in here without a torch and Aaron’s support, albeit from a thousand kilometres away. Just one other room and she could flee to the normal, everyday street below. She wouldn’t come back tomorrow unless loaded with industrial-grade cleaning products. First thing, those shutters came down. And her phone would be fully charged.
Mim flipped the screen outwards. She screamed, letting go of her digital lifeline which clattered to the floor. The firmly shut door of a moment ago had yawned wide on stealthy joints, revealing an abyss that devoid of light pulsed with malice. Her light flickered and extinguished. Heart thrashing her ribs, she scrambled on her knees to blindly pat the ground, stirring plumes that irritated her eyes and triggered a hacking cough. Smothering pitch closed in around her, whispering bleak messages in her mind and plucking at her nerves until illogical fear choked all else.
Gulping tears of panic, Mim continued to search. Barely aware, she gouged her knee on a loose nail, a bloodsmear tracking the frantic chaos of her grovel across the floor. Where could her phone have gone? She prayed it wasn’t broken. One of her legs dropped over the void, almost pulling her down, and she froze for unending seconds before gradually saving her balance. Finally, a fingertip brushed cool metal and she lunged for her link to the ordinary, sane world, which had vanished in this cloying hole. Miriam leaped up and brandished the phone like a Knight’s sword on the battlefield, her chest convulsing.
“Aaron!” Merciful light invaded yet another squalid, empty room. “Are you there?”
She croaked, “A spider dropped on me.”
“Did you brush it—Hey, check that out.”
Mim grunted a refusal, trying to stabilise her breathing. If he was right about mildew making her sick, the amount she’d sucked in was terminal. Pain jabbed her knee, a drip of warmth running down her shin and soaking her sock. When was her last tetanus shot? She struggled to gain control of her rubbery limbs, spent adrenalin leaving her weak. Although she felt foolish, her jitters endured. Hatred for this place that seemed disproportionate, if not utterly moronic, took root.
“Far wall,” Aaron persisted.
Her collar was clammy and the last thing she wanted to do was see one more thing in this joyless, bug-infested pit. Well-oiled hinges belonged in someone else’s suburban palace. That door was definitely closed. And the Solicitor’s papers didn’t specify she had to stay here, just that it couldn’t be sold within a period of searching for the other stakeholder. Given a better understanding of what she’d inherited, such a condition appeared fraught with complications she didn’t need. It was like peeking inside a treasure chest at untouchable wealth that cursed you the moment you beheld it. Could she refuse her share outright?
“Mim. Are you looking?”
Their original plan to rent on campus was still an option, albeit a costly one. If it meant taking a second job to support them, so be it.
From where she dithered just beyond the door, Mim fixed her spotlight at a huge vintage three-door armoire squatting along the front wall opposite. It was a spectacular piece, likely worth a bucket at auction.
Of lustrous chocolate wood – probably walnut – it towered almost to the ceiling, hand carvings of flowers and ivy trailing the pilasters in full relief. Heraldic crests centred the otherwise clear doors, three parallel drawers below almost gaudy with leaves. Foliate motifs trimmed the crown and base, the keyholes, handles and drawer knobs of etched brass fronds.
“Suss out what’s in it. Might be a bag of money or heirloom jewellery.”
A chance at financial reward couldn’t eclipse the dread stirring her belly. Ill-ease amplified on every spent minute inside. Even after the quickest scan, the wardrobe was free of dust and cobwebs as if a loving hand had polished it only that morning. Such a contradiction tipped the spooky factor into territory she didn’t want to venture.
The run-down terrace exuded misery. But the wardrobe was another level, sinister in a way she could not articulate, even to herself; welcomed by a spectral gliding door that gifted access too readily after a trial of obstacles, as though all else was the warm-up and that was the show-stealer.
Whatever its hidden recesses held, Mim felt certain was better left alone. And she hadn’t forgotten that thud. Or that her phone prepared to die. The idea of sentient furniture, desperate to hook her attention, was too silly for words. Maybe Denning’s reference to a negative history had made her paranoid. Still, he wouldn’t deliberately put her at risk, would he?
“No, I’ll do it tomorrow. It’s getting dark and Em’s cooking dinner. She’ll worry if I’m not on time.”
Em’s more likely reaction if Mim never returned was to forget to call the cops. Their arrangement didn’t include food.
“I’ll be harvesting until late, unreachable. Curiosity is going to kill me. Just a little peek.”
If the house hadn’t already deterred her, the notion of killing curiosity did. Since her arrival, she hadn’t quite felt alone. And if there was a spy with a choosy cleanliness fetish, where were they? Why hadn’t they shown themselves? It was like one of those thrillers where a stranger secretly resides in the walls, waiting for a chance to jump out with a meat cleaver.
“It’s locked and there are no keys.”
“How do you know?”
“You’ll have to wait.”
In emphasis, Mim turned on her heel. A series of thumps came again more urgently, accompanied by a rattle. The hair on her arms prickled to attention.
“What was that?” Aaron asked.
At least he’d heard it, and she wasn’t going mad. In a tremendous act of will not to sprint for the stairs, Mim directed her phone at the sound in the ceiling, praying the charge would hold for one minute more. On entering, praying had apparently become her default.
“Are you getting this, Aaron?”
“An attic? You never mentioned an attic.”
“That’s because there wasn’t an attic on the plans.”
“Why the hell would anyone need to padlock their attic?”
Two heavy-duty locks, linked through thick loops of metal, held an iron bar across a square hatch. As if prompted by his question, both locks shuddered confirming the source of the noise.
Mim recoiled, darting for the steps and vaulting down as fast as her jellied legs would carry her. She barged the stubborn front door and took the porch steps in one bound, staggering to a halt on the weed-riddled verge. Bending to grip her knees, she sucked lungfuls of fresh air. Her phone bleeped and died, cutting Aaron off mid-sentence.
In the golden ambiance of twilight fear dwindled to embarrassment at her over-reaction. An elderly neighbour glared over the fence from the sanctuary of her well-tended garden, pausing the tempo of secateurs snipping dead camellias. Mim straightened and patted grime from her t-shirt.
Out here in the warm summer evening, surrounded by a riot of red and pink flowers, their perfume wafting the breeze, it was hard to make sense of her alarm. She smiled and waved at the woman, who showed Mim the back of her straw sunhat and continued pruning. Great. Hostile neighbours to go with the nightmare wreck.
Mim headed along the street for the bus stop, not bothering to shut the front door. She didn’t look back. If a vagrant had the stones to trespass, they could have at it with her blessing. Hopefully, they’d do a bit of cleaning in repayment.
And scare away whatever lurked in the attic.